Five big philosophical questions: my modest take

number 5

golden 3d number 5 isolated on white

An anonymous poster has recently published a short essay over at the Oxford University Press philosophy blog, entitled “5 great unsolved philosophical questions.” How could I possibly resist answering them, I ask you? Presumptuous, you might say. Well, no, that would be the case if I claimed that my answers are original, or clearly the right ones. I make no such claim, I am simply offering my informed opinion about them, in my dual role of a philosopher and scientist. Of course, I’m also totally right.

Before proceeding, I need to remind readers of my take on the nature of philosophical questions, and therefore of philosophy itself. Here it is, in a nutshell. (For a much longer, and far more substantiated, though of course not necessarily convincing to everyone, answer, see here.)

Philosophy began, in the Western tradition, with the pre-Socratics, and at that time, and for many centuries afterwards, its business was all-encompassing. Pretty much every meaningful question to be asked was philosophical, or had a philosophical component. Then gradually, mathematics was spun off as one of many offsprings from Mother Philosophy, followed from the 17th century on by a succession of what today we call sciences: first physics, then chemistry, biology, and eventually psychology. That did not mean any shrinking of philosophy itself, however. The discipline retained its core (metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, logic, epistemology, and so forth) and added just as many “philosophies of” as new disciplines originated from it (e.g., philosophy of science, of language, of mind, and so forth).

In modern times, I think the business of philosophy is no longer trying to attain empirical truths about the world (we’ve got science for that), but rather to critically explore concepts and notions informed, whenever possible, by science. As Wilfrid Sellars would put it, philosophers are in the business of reconciling the manifest and the scientific images of the world. (I also think philosophy is therapy for the sane, so to speak, and a way of life.)

As a result, and this brings me to the topic of the present post, philosophical questions are unlikely to ever be answered definitively. Rather, philosophers propose a number of competing accounts aimed at increasing our understanding of such questions. Our knowledge of things will likely always underdetermine our understanding, meaning that several accounts may be equally plausible or interesting. The job of philosophers is to propose and refine these accounts, as well as discard those that have become untenable because of our progress in both science and philosophy.

1. Do we really have free will?

An incredible amount of ink has been spilled on this question over the centuries. There are religious people from the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition who are absolutely sure the answer is yes. And there are physicists and neuroscientists who are adamant that the answer is obviously no.

My take is that it all depends on what one means by “free will,” and moreover, that the answer doesn’t really matter. If “free” indicates some magical independence of human will from causality, then no, we don’t have it. We are part and parcel of the universal web of cause and effect, and we can’t exempt ourselves simply so that we can reconcile the alleged existence of an all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing God with the obvious observation that bad shit happens in the world.

That said, people who are absolutely sure that we live in a deterministic universe, where the writing of these very words was a given ever since the Big Bang, are significantly overstepping their epistemic warrant. Physics has not given us, yet, an ultimate theory describing the basic building blocks of existence, and we don’t know whether the world, ato bottom, works deterministically or whether instead there is true randomness in it. Indeed, we are not even sure that so-called “strong emergence” is impossible, though at the moment I’m betting against it.

But, as I said, it doesn’t matter. We should drop the theologically loaded term “free will” to begin with, and go instead with what the ancient Greeks called prohairesis, and modern cognitive scientists call volition, the ability to make decisions. It is an indisputable fact that we have more volition than most animals, a hell of a lot more than plants, and infinitely more than rocks. It is also indisputable that we have to make decisions in order to live, that we can train ourselves to get better at them, and that it is in our own interest to do so. Anyone objecting to this is falling prey to the ancient “lazy argument,” and is just wasting your time.

2. Can we know anything at all?

Ah, well, that depends on what one means by “know,” doesn’t it? Setting aside modern debates in epistemology (the so-called Gettier problem), at a first approximation knowledge is, following Plato, justified true belief. So the debate is really about truth and justification.

There are different conceptions of truth, as I have argued at length (see here and here), so we need to be more specific. Science, and much everyday discourse, typically operate according to a correspondence theory of truth: it is true that the Moon rotates around the Earth just in case the state of affairs in the world out there corresponds with that sentence. Logic and mathematics, by contrast, work with a coherence conception of truth. To say that the Pythagorean theorem is “true” (yes, yes, within the framework of Euclidean geometry!) is to say that its conclusions are logically derived from its premises in a valid fashion.

But of course the correspondence account of truth brings up the issue of justification: how do we justify the correspondence between my utterance that the Moon goes around the Earth in terms of actual states of affairs in the world? Unlike in deductive reasoning, which is typical of both formal logic and mathematics, scientific and everyday inferences are inductive, which means we cannot be certain about them, we can only make probabilistic statements. So, in the strict sense, no, we can’t know anything (outside of logical-mathematical truths). But this isn’t worrisome so long as one is willing to accept with humility that human beings are finite and fallible. We still seem to have been able to acquire a lot of quasi-knowledge, which has been serving us well for hundreds of thousands of years.

(Notice that I completely ignored the radical skeptical challenge to the concept of knowledge, a la Pyrrhonism, or of the Cartesian doubt type. I think those challenges are both irrefutable and irrelevant, except as a good aid at checking our own hubris.)

3. Who am “I”?

This too is an age-old question, to which both scientists and philosophers have attempted to provide answers. Philosophers have come up with accounts based on the continuity of memory (what makes you who you are is your memories), on the persistence of one’s personality, or on the continued physical existence of you as a spatio-temporal being, and so on. All of these have problems, and yet all of them capture some aspects of what we think we mean when we use the word “I.” Other theories are deflationary, both in philosophy and in modern neuroscience. There really is no “you,” because your “self” is not an essence, it is, as David Hume famously put it, a bundle of perceptions.

I don’t subscribe to either the idea that there is an essence that is us (e.g., the position taken by anyone who believes we have souls), nor to the opposite notion that the self is an illusion. Personal identity is a human concept, not something to be discovered out there, either by metaphysical or scientific inquiry. It is the way we think about, and make sense of, our thoughts, sensations, and experiences. It is both true that I am, to an extent, a different person from what I was ten or twenty years ago, as well as that I am, to a point, the same (or similar enough) person. And yes, this way of thinking about personal identity is informed by a combination of the above criteria: I am who I am because I have memories of my past (in part, and anyway a disease could erase them), because I have a certain somewhat stable personality (though aspects of it have changed over time, and again a disease could alter it dramatically), and because I have been in existence as a continuous spatio-temporal “warm.”

It is true that we can come up with all sorts of clever thought experiments about unreal situations that effectively question every account proposed so far. But those thought experiments largely miss the point, because in a sense they assume that there is one true and final answer to the question of personal identity, if only we were clever enough to figure it out. That, I think, is a mistake that smells of Platonic Idealism, like asking what is the essence of the concept of chair and attempting to arrive at a definition that unifies all the objects that we label with that word, with no exceptions and no provisos.

4. What is death?

This is an easy one, as far as I’m concerned. Plenty of people seem to think that death is something mysterious, and wonder what will happen “after.” Nothing will happen, because you will have ceased to exist. Consequently, there will be no “you” (whatever that means, see above) to experience anything. There is nothing that it is like to be dead.

I arrived at this conclusion both because my philosophy is naturalistic, and because I’m a scientist, and particularly a biologist. My professor of biophysics in college, Mario Ageno, memorably defined death as a sudden increase in entropy, which disrupts the orderly functions of our our physiology and metabolism. Death is a natural phenomenon, everything passes, panta rhei. The important question, as the Stoics were keenly aware of, is what you are going to do between now and that final moment. And keep in mind that you don’t actually know when it will come. It may already be later than you think…

5. What would “global justice” look like?

This is an odd entry in the OUP Blog post, possibly a reflection of contemporary debates about justice and inequality, more than a measure of the fundamentality of the question from a philosophical perspective. Then again, Socrates did spend a lot of time inquiring into the nature of justice, so there it goes. (We get a full treatment of the subject by Socrates/Plato in the Republic.)

The OUP entry, curiously, says that “to this day, there is no universally accepted theory of justice.” But why would we expect there to be such a theory? Again, justice, like personal identity, is a human construct, not to be found “out there,” either metaphysically or scientifically. We need to have a conversation about what we want justice to mean, whether it is a worthy goal (I certainly think it is), and what are the best strategies to achieve it.

As a practicing Stoic, I quite like that philosophy’s take on the concept, which was crucial to the Stoics since justice is one of the four virtues one is supposed to practice in order to become a better human being: “The unanimity of the soul with itself, and the good discipline of the parts of the soul with respect to each other and concerning each other; the state that distributes to each person according to what is deserved; the state on account of which its possessor chooses what appears to him to be just; the state underlying a law-abiding way of life; social equality; the state of obedience to the laws.” (Incidentally, this comes from Plato’s philosophical dictionary, the Definitions.)

There is a lot going on there, and please don’t be bothered by the use of the word “soul,” which can simply be replaced with mind, if you prefer. And I discard the bit about obedience to the laws, since there can obviously be unjust laws (that part is Platonic, not Stoic). The bulk of it, however, shifts back and forth between justice as personal attitude (we are in harmony with ourselves, we make the right decisions) and a social perspective (we want each person to receive according to their desert, we wish to achieve social equality). This capture an aspect often missing from modern discussions of justice: we cannot have a just society made of unjust people. Justice is achieved through a continuous virtuous feedback loop between individuals and the society they help constitute.

That’s it folks! I have just solved five of the all-time philosophical questions! You can thank me by buying me a drink the next time you see me…


83 thoughts on “Five big philosophical questions: my modest take

  1. labnut

    Of course, I’m also totally right.

    But which one of you is totally right, the scientist or the philosopher?
    Do they agree?
    Is such agreement possible?


  2. labnut

    I also think philosophy is therapy for the sane

    In that case there will be few takers. It is not the sane who need therapy. It is the rest of us ordinary, imperfect people who make up the crooked timber of humanity that need the sextant, the compass and the straight edge of philosophy.


  3. labnut

    Rather, philosophers propose a number of competing accounts aimed at increasing our understanding of such questions.

    Now I begin to agree with you. Competing accounts raise our hackles, stimulate interest, compel scrutiny, provoke keen debate, erode prejudice and clarify thought. The competition of ideas is our best guide to the truth.


  4. labnut

    That’s it folks! I have just solved five of the all-time philosophical questions!

    You started out in a most promising way when you said
    Rather, philosophers propose a number of competing accounts aimed at increasing our understanding of such questions.

    But then you conclude by giving us just one account that you boldly proclaim is the solution:
    I have just solved five of the all-time philosophical questions

    Is there not a small contradiction here?

    To answer my first question(But which one of you is totally right, the scientist or the philosopher?), I suspect the boldness of your conclusion was voiced by the scientist in you since only science is known to be possessed of such certainty(perhaps with good reason?).


  5. Massimo Post author


    obviously that comment about being totally right was in jest. But yeah, my philosophy and science parts are in agreement on all these questions. They have reached a nice (though dynamic) reflective equilibrium.


  6. Massimo Post author


    can you seriously not see that the boldness of the conclusion was also in jest? Did the invitation to buy me drinks not give it away? I need to start using emoticons when I want to make a joke on the blog…

    Liked by 3 people

  7. saphsin

    I think I basically share all your positions here.

    I heard an interesting alternative from a friend of mine on free will recently. He denies that there is free will, not just in the causality sense but in the volition sense, and that what we feel as volition has much more to do with the material circumstances we find ourselves in. He finds this ethically attractive because it frees us from the illusory feeling that the decisions we make transcends how we’re moulded by our position in society, and that personally prevents his compulsion to judge others and blame them (and feel guilt over his own thoughts) So someone who has his life ruined by poverty might feel responsibility for his actions if he’s lead to a life of crime, but he thinks the concept of pinning personal responsibility loses perspective. He says he finds the Stoic case better than the conventional sense but insufficient in this regards.

    I remember this was Einstein & Spinoza’s perspective on these matters, and I can see the appeal, but I personally find your decision to rely on the notion of volition as less conceptually problematic for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. jbonnicerenoreg

    So would you say that we have a faculty of choice but we don’t know how it works in our physically determined body or our choices are as determined as anything else but we don’t know it works or why it looks like choices are not determined?


  9. labnut

    can you seriously not see that the boldness of the conclusion was also in jest?

    Yes, I did see the lighthearted, jesting component of your post which led me to reply in a similar spirit of lighthearted humour. I am sad that my attempt fell flat but that takes nothing away from the excellence of your post.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. synred

    >because I have been in existence as a continuous spatio-temporal “warm.”

    ->Soliton…a complex self-reinforcing wave —


  11. couvent2104


    When I was reading your piece, I had the strange feeling that these problems are solved, or at least almost as solved as they can be within philosophy.

    Also, I’m slightly disappointed the interpretation of QM is not on your list 🙂
    I found a great quote on Scott Aaronson’s blog today (he teaches an undergrad Intro to Quantum Information course):

    On the other hand, when (…) we put an optional ungraded question on the final exam that asked students their favorite interpretation of QM, we found that there was no correlation whatsoever between interpretation and final exam score—except that students who said they didn’t believe any interpretation at all, or that the question was meaningless or didn’t matter, scored noticeably higher than everyone else.


  12. Philosopher Eric

    Before reading Massimo’s post I’ll address these five questions (whether “great” or not) as a test to see how similar our views currently happen to be.

    Do [I] have freewill? Not according to my single principle of metaphysics, or that all of reality functions causally. I can’t know that it’s true, but to the extent that it fails, there aren’t things to figure out anyway.
    Can [I] know anything at all? Well about what exists all I can be perfectly sure about is that I personally exist in some manner or another. It’s not possible to me that I don’t exist.
    Who am I? I consider it effective to view this as “instantaneous sentience”. To the extent that I lose my potential to feel bad/good, all that should remain is matter (or whatever).
    What is death? There is no true definition for this or any other term. Furthermore apparently biologists don’t yet have a very useful definitiom for “life”, and thus its opposite.
    What would global justice look like? Justice is nothing more than a humanly fabricated term. Define it however you like, and that’s how it would look. If you get a lot of people to look at it that way as well, you might have something!


  13. Philip Thrift

    It is interesting that the working assumption of those working in “strong” AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) is the opposite of some (many?) scientists, apparently, on “free will”: e.g. “free will [or volition] is a necessary part of AGI” (Creating Free Will in Artificial Intelligence, in Proceedings of the International Conference: Beyond AI 2013). Maybe Elon Musk is right to be scared.


  14. brodix

    It’s Wednesday already! We’re supposed to do this in two days? It’ll take three, at least.

    The free will/determinism issue has to eventually consider the question of time. Is it presentist, or eternalist?

    Obviously the eternalist view is explicitly deterministic, as in all history is pre-existing, so until physics can come down off its platonically mathematical treatment of time, or the rest of the sciences quit bowing in subjection to it, that issue will remain in limbo.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Robin Herbert

    The majority religious position is not “free will” in the “could do otherwise” sense. The official position in Islam is predestination. In some Christian demoninations they explicitly espouse predestination, but even in Catholicism and Anglicanism this is more or less the position.

    Augustine assumes that God can know exactly what a free person will choose to do in any given circumstance and if God actually makes this happen then it is no different to the person doing it of their own free will.

    Aquinas’s criterion for free will is that the person knew and understood the consequences, not that they could do otherwise. And even the Molinian position contains the assumption that there is only one thing that a person will do in a given circumstance.

    So the majority religious position on free will is functionally the same as, say, Daniel Dennett’s.


  16. brodix

    On the knowledge issue, I don’t see that it equates with “truth,” so much as information.

    Truth might be considered the signal we are trying to derive from the noise of information, but so often what is signal to one, is still just noise to others. As various of the interactions on this forum attest.

    Information seems to be a static construct, derived from a dynamic situation, consequently its seeming ambiguity.

    Can we “know” anything, other than the information we manage to extract from experience? Any examples?

    It’s not that the larger reality isn’t quite evident, but just that our senses necessarily focus, otherwise we would be drowned in input. Whiteout. TMI.


  17. brodix

    “Who am I?”

    Am I the state of consciousness that is seemingly pushing through this sequence of perceptions, thoughts, insights, observations, etc, or am I, as a particular being, only those formulations and the consciousness is bubbling up from some deeper, collective source?

    There have been a number of situations where I’ve suspected the latter. Both where it has been incredibly heartwarming, or incredibly terrifying. Often though, increasingly some mash of the two. My fellow beings are somewhat disturbing.


  18. saphsin

    I’ve seen some comments on this piece outside the blog that mentioned that they generally sympathize with your anti-platonic approach on personal identity but they’ve confronted real life implications that makes it perhaps more problematic than implied here. For instance, how to evaluate those suffering from dementia and how they would anchor their conception of themselves to this world. Do we treat people who have had amnesia as if their previous self has “died” or someone we already used to know and love but still treat as the same. Concerns like that.


  19. brodix

    Justice is one of those top down, descriptive terms, of a bottom up social entanglement, or lack thereof.

    Is there some communal reciprocity, or are some preying on others?


  20. Mark Shulgasser

    Free will: Seems like the question that is begged is the concept of Cause, which predetermines one’s understanding of free will.

    Can we know: Since there is no I and no You, what’s We?

    Personal identity: is there anything that is not ‘a bundle of sensations?’ Surely identity is a social phenomenon and even process.

    Death: ‘ . . . you will have ceased to exist.’ But there is no You (see above) so what is it that will have ceased to exist? Rocks exist, are they not dead? (Also what is it to exist? be conscious? have identity? So easy to blur these big questions)

    Global justice? Not something the musing mind can just dream up. We’ve been working on it for millennia. Technology is a large part of it. Might look much like DLT (distributed ledger technology): not for better people, but for better institutions.


  21. Robin Herbert

    There are plenty of physicists who say that strong determinism is probably the case, so I can’t rule it out.

    And I think it can be shown that our very idea of volition is inconsistent with strong determinism.

    To see this you just have to imagine that someone has invented a device for recording an hour or so of the future.

    I am given a list of all the things I will do in the next hour and given the offer that I can earn a million dollars if I can refrain from doing anything on that list.

    So the first thing on the list is that I drink a cup of coffee at 9:30 am. I am pretty sure that I could resist drinking a cup of coffee for ten minutes in order to get a million dollars and I am pretty sure that I would choose to do so. I don’t like coffee that much.

    But, if determinism was true, I would drink the cup of coffee at 9:30 am and forego the million dollars. I think that in that circumstance the illusion of volition would be shattered.

    But, if strong determinism is true, the only difference between that situation and my normal life is that I don’t have that list.


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